If you own a Windows laptop with ATI graphics hardware, updating the display driver is often much harder than it needs to be. The solution to this problem is quick, easy, and free -- and now, it works on laptops running Windows Vista.

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

July 30, 2008

4 Min Read

If you own a Windows laptop with ATI graphics hardware, updating the display driver is often much harder than it needs to be. The solution to this problem is quick, easy, and free -- and now, it works on laptops running Windows Vista.The ATI driver "problem" is not a software issue; it's a vendor issue. And it's an embarrassment.

Many laptop manufacturers provide custom drivers for the ATI graphics hardware in their products; some custom drivers are reliable, some clearly are not. Many other vendors use the reference driver ATI provides for its Mobility graphics hardware chipsets, but the version they provide customers often lags behind the most current release.

We're not talking a step or two behind, either: Some major laptop vendors have been known to offer display drivers that are years out of date. At least they don't sell milk.

Display driver updates were once a concern mostly for computer gamers and other relatively small segments of the laptop computer market. Today, however, far more businesses rely on videoconferencing software and other graphics-intensive applications that rely on up-to-date, fully functional display drivers.

Windows Vista will also make more business users aware of this issue: Vista's Aero interface will chew up and spit out an old or buggy display driver.

For several years now, ATI itself has provided one of the best ways to fix bad or obsolete laptop display drivers. The company's Catalyst Mobility reference driver works pretty well on almost any laptop with ATI graphics hardware (including those sold with custom drivers). And obviously, if you need the latest ATI laptop display driver, this is the best place to find it.

Not surprisingly, laptop users turn to ATI for something laptop makers often fail to give them: a current, fully functional display driver. Whether ATI can give it to them is another story.

Here is how Terry Makedon, a manager at ATI (now a subsidiary of chipmaker AMD), described the situation in April, 2007:

AMD (formerly ATI) introduced the concept of Catalyst Mobility which is a generic driver that works decently for most laptops. The only way we are able to do this is through permission by a laptop manufacturer (OEM) to include their device in the Catalyst Mobility. We were the first company to provide graphics drivers for laptops to the general public, and we believe there is great value in this. At this point we only have permission from a few vendors and I personally wish more of them would let us. My suggestion is you contact your manufacturer and ask them to have your laptop included in Catalyst Mobility. As for Vista specifically we do not have permissions yet, but as soon as we do we look forward to releasing Vista drivers for laptops.

Laptop makers worry that users who install the ATI reference driver will cause tech support problems. It's a silly claim: Most users who need the reference driver already have a problem, and it is usually one the vendors themselves cannot or will not fix. To make matters worse, these vendors are deliberately making life difficult for users who look elsewhere for a solution.

Fortunately for everyone involved, a free utility called Mobility Modder performs a neat end-run around this mess. In a nutshell, Mobility Modder automatically modifies the desktop equivalent of the ATI laptop reference driver; the end result typically installs and functions exactly like an unmodified ATI Catalyst Mobility driver.

Mobility Modder has an impeccable pedigree: The same developer created the well-known Driver Cleaner, a utility that cleans up the mess so many hardware driver uninstallers leave behind. Mobility Modder installs to a single folder, does not modify the Windows registry or system files, and has been downloaded a total of roughly eight million times since it appeared several years ago.

Better yet, the latest version of Mobility Modder, released in early July, for the first time supports Windows Vista.

If you want to download Mobility Modder or simply want to learn more, you can start right here.

(By the way: If any of this sounds out of your depth, then don't do it. Murphy's Law rules this realm with an iron fist; if you can't restore a system just as quickly as you wrecked it, get some help.)

The laptop vendors themselves should be grateful a tool like Mobility Modder exists. Without it, they might worry more about returned products than they ever did about tech-support costs.

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